Discussions about a deal for the army and police must start now if the country is to experience a smooth transition in the event of an MDC win.
A conditional amnesty for Zimbabwe's security sector must be recognised as a potential tool that can be used in negotiations between the principal political parties to bring the country's protracted conflict to an end.
The key aim must be to devise a way to use an amnesty to isolate the hard-line insurgents from the communities that support them ideologically, financially or logistically. But any offer of an amnesty must be part of a wider transitional framework in the pursuit of justice.
In the light of evidence from a citizen survey and given other historical and political considerations relevant to Zimbabwe, any conditional amnesty would need to include a full disclosure of crimes committed, entail an agreement that human rights abusers would be barred from public office, and, where relevant, ensure that state institutions partake in lustration as a part of reform.
However, an amnesty is not without risks to a democratic transition, especially if the opposition wins the polls that are expected to be held at some time between June and September this year.
Some elite members of Zanu-PF, in conjunction with members of the military, are stripping state assets and abusing social justice programmes. They have captured most of the country's diamond wealth through a combination of state-sponsored violence and the introduction of opaque joint-venture companies. Fresh land grabbing, illegal mining and indigenisation must be closely watched.
Control of economic resources
Should Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) gain political power in the next election, Zanu-PF would seek control of economic resources and to ensure that members of the party and the military elite and their families keep their wealth.
Without an amnesty, there are several ways this could take place. One example is that they could act before any political transition occurs. Once they secure their assets, they will be happier to "negotiate" and move out of office. They are also likely to insist that asset forfeiture is not a condition of any amnesty deal that is put forward. Nonetheless, some members of the security sector are engaging in reform.
This would allow us to draw four particular conclusions: key elites recognise that the new political dispensation is not a fad; there is a space to engage on reform, although distrust in foreign governments remains high among individuals who have the ability to disrupt a transition of power; the culture of impunity that has long been associated with the security sector is unsustainable; and, finally, there is a need for engagement and confidence building regarding an amnesty and related issues.
Members of the security sector have expressed anxiety about the loss of ill-gained wealth held in various forms, notably land, mining and other businesses. There is less concern about imprisonment and extradition in security circles than about the loss of wealth.
But these conversations are in very nascent stages, so it is difficult to understand or speculate about why they do not fear imprisonment.
The MDC-T has not taken a position on an amnesty. Nonetheless, in an interview with one high-ranking MDC-T official, it was clear that an amnesty is seen as a necessity for the top generals who comprise the army, air force, prison service and police. Moreover, an amnesty should also be considered for lieutenant generals, major generals and brigadier generals and their families.
The official believed that the MDC-T should see that this discussion and offer take place before the elections because the party perceives the military as a key threat to a peaceful transition of power.
The MDC-T's failure to have a discussion about an amnesty and its application, despite noting that it is a necessity, demonstrates that the party lacks a strategy and even an understanding of how an amnesty should be used. There is no plan to sell the idea to party members or to the country as a whole. This poses a serious risk both to the MDC-T should it win elections and to the political transition of the country.
Until the MDC-T can address the concerns and fears of those within the security sector adequately, no transition of power will take place even if the party wins the poll.
Zimbabwean civil society stakeholders are primarily focused on the need for a truth, justice and reconciliation commission. This is possibly due to an acknowledged lack of knowledge about the options and functioning of transitional justice mechanisms.
Civil society does not generally support the concept of an amnesty because it claims that there is a widespread desire for justice among the victims of violence and dispossession for the prosecution of the perpetrators and for reparations. This is supported by the most recent 2012 Afrobarometer survey, which found that the idea of an amnesty is not accepted by the majority of Zimbabweans.
Of those polled, 47% do not want amnesty to be granted to perpetrators of political crimes under any circumstances, with 52% seeking that crimes are brought to justice in local courts. Other surveys suggest that a conditional amnesty could be acceptable under certain circumstances, notably when it can be used as a tool to ensure peace and stability.
Unpopular elite pact
Informed citizens may well see the logic and necessity of considering certain compromises between peace and justice to avoid an unpopular elite pact that could threaten transition.
By better understanding the advantages and disadvantages of an amnesty, civic organisations and citizens alike may be able to pitch or sell their demands to hardliners in advance of an agreement, although discussions are likely to remain behind closed doors for some time because the conditions for a public debate are not yet present.
Stakeholders must carry forward a discussion that seeks to achieve a transitional framework for justice that will give an advantage to citizens and victims, and also bring the spoilers to the negotiating table.
External stakeholders such as the Southern Africa Development Community and the international community must compel political parties, civil society and ordinary Zimbabweans to start thinking about and discussing an amnesty in a public space. Those few who are currently engaged in these discussions must be encouraged and supported to continue doing so.
BM Sims is a political analyst